Since 1990 These Counties Are The Hardest Hit By Population Decline In Their State
The 1990s are a significant time for Lost Americana, which goes beyond the fact that during that decade what was once known as “my abandoned barn project” got it’s start and later became the Lost Americana documentary. No, the 1990s are significant, because it was the first decade where the number of farmers in this country essentially stopped rapidly shrinking, or in more harsh terms “bottomed out. ”
By 1990 the number of farms and farmers in America had basically leveled out to about 2.9 million of each, after decades of steep declines that started after World War II when farming account for over 30 million jobs in this country, spread out over 6 million farms. And today it essentially sits in the same position as it did in the 1990s, just over one farmer for each farm on roughly 2.1 million farms. So from the 1990s on, people living in rural agricultural America were no longer being laid off, so to speak, as farms consolidated and technology advancements required less labor (not saying it didn’t happen, just not on the scale it did from 1950 to 1990). No, anyone who was left at this point would have been working elsewhere in the area, yet across the entire country just about every state had at least one declining county. And state with more rural agricultural areas saw many counties shrink. Why was that?
Towns Were Built For Farmers
This is not to say that towns were built only for farmers, but none-the-less these towns would not have existed if not to support the farmer. In a sad irony, the towns that sprung up, especially in the Midwest & Great Plains grew because of the commerce of farming & ranching and are now dying in-part to decreased support needed by farming & ranching. As farms needed less people, schools had smaller enrollments, houses went unsold, or unrented, grocery stores sold less, banks had fewer customers, tractor mechanics had less machines to service and with all this came the consolidation of commerce and not just farms anymore.
This is what it started to look like around the late 1980s on up; Your district closed schools and the kids in your town had to ride a bus miles to a consolidated school for the county. The hardware store closed a few locations in your county and moved everything to the county seat store. If your town had under 1,000 people you’d be thankful to have more than just a bar & a post office left in your town. Those lucky enough to be around retirement age stayed, while younger workers had to leave and the average age of the population increased from the state average by about 5, 10, sometimes almost 15 years in some counties. These along with a list of other issues has made financial sustainability in many rural areas almost impossible for most and in turn you’re still seeing a large outward migration and shrinking populations in most rural counties. Twenty fifteen marked the first time in U.S. history the overall rural population declined.
What Makes A Rural County?
Counties are designated by the size of their largest town and then their proximity to larger cities. A longer explanation of who, what, and just how rural a county is will be in a future blog post, but for now just know that if the largest town in your county doesn’t have more than 2,500 residents, chances are you’ll rural, but not always.
What’s In A Number?
These numbers that you see beside the represent the percentage of population decline and the difference in population between 1990 & 2016.*
Alabama – Perry County 24.9% (-3,185)
Arizona – Only population gains
Arkansas – Monroe County 36.7% (-4,164)
California – Sierra County 11.1% (-371)
Colorado – Cheyenne County 22.9% (-549)
Connecticut – Only population gains
Delaware – Only population gains
Florida – Only population gains
Georgia – Chattahoochee County 35.5% (-6,012)
Hawaii – Kalawao County 32.3% (-42)
Idaho – Butte County 14.2% (-417)
Illinois – Alexander County 39% (-4,148)
Indiana – Blackford County 13.5% (-1,899)
Iowa – Pocahontas County 27.7% (-2,639)
Kansas – Kiowa County 32.1% (-1,177)
Kentucky – Harlan County 25.7% (-9,406)
Louisiana – Tensas Parish 35.2% (-2,506)
Maine – Aroostook County 21.8% (-18,977)
Maryland – Allegany County** 3.7% (-2,816)
Massachusetts – Berkshire County 8.9% (-12,449)
Michigan – Ontonagon County 33.2% (-2,943)
Minnesota – Kittson County 24.8% (-1,434)
Mississippi – Sharkey County 35.5% (-2,514)
Missouri – Atchison County 29% (-2,164)
Montana – McCone County 25.3% (-576)
Nebraska – Rock County 31.1% (-629)
Nevada – Esmeralda County 41.2% (-554)
New Hampshire – Coos County 8% (-2,789)
New Jersey – 2.8% Salem County 2.8% (-1,858)
New Mexico – Harding County 32.6% (-322)
New York – Salem County 14% (-737)
North Carolina – Washington County 12.8% (-1,802)
North Dakota – Sheridan County 38.4% (-826)
Ohio – Jefferson County 17% (-13,594)
Oklahoma – Cimarron County 34.5% (-1,139)
Oregon – Sherman County 10.8% (-208)
Pennsylvania – Cameron County 21% (-1,236)
Rhode Island – Newport County 5% (-4,410)
South Carolina – Allendale County 22.8% (-2,677)
South Dakota – Miner County 30.2% (-991)
Tennessee – Haywood County 8.1% (-1,584)
Texas – Terrell County 42.4% (-598)
Utah – Emery County 1.1% (-116)
Vermont – Rutland County 4.5% (-2,832)
Virginia – Buchanan County 29.2% (-9,155)
Washington – Columbia County 2.1% (-86)
West Virginia – McDowell 45.6% (-16,092)
Wisconsin – Price County 13.3% (-2,083)
Wyoming – Carbon County 6.2% (-1,041)
*I could not publish this list without noting that while most, if not all, of these counties are rural, not all are agriculturally based, some are affected by other factors, like a downsized military base, mining, or logging, but this only pertains to the hardest hit and shouldn’t take away that many other counties from each state not listed meet the factors for which Lost Americana is focused on.
**Technically Baltimore City, which is incorporated separately from Baltimore County was the hardest hit in Maryland, but given that the County of Baltimore has seen a 20% population increase in that time and that this is a look at a regional area, not just individual towns, I felt it was best left off the list.
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Photo graphics for other states can be seen in this gallery.